By Ronny Al-Nosir.
Republicans from across the United States have gathered in Cleveland, Ohio for what has shaped up to be a coronation chalk full of lunacy. At the centre of this madness rolling across the continent like a bible-thumping tumbleweed is the Republican presidential nominee – a bigoted, near fascist himself. Donald Trump comes at a troubling and uncomfortable time for our neighbors to the south. Trump’s boorish, insensitive demagoguery has done nothing but widen the cracks of an already fragile society. Indeed, what once might have been called the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’ has been divided these past few weeks by deep racial tensions and shocking gun violence.
Things aren’t any better for Europe. It’s been plunged into uncertainty in the aftermath of the Brexit vote which appealed to the underlying divisions and ethnoskepticism of British nationalists. Over the past year we’ve seen terrorist attacks in France and Belgium and the rise of radical right-wing European parties like the Front National (FN).
In contrast, Canada’s looking pretty good. A country where tolerance and the celebration of diversity supposedly conquers the politics of fear and division. Amusingly, British residents have reportedly been googling ways to move to Canada, as have Americans fearing Trump. But if they did move to the sunny waters of Cape Breton, they should be forewarned that while nationalism seems more rampant across the globe, Canada still has its issues with tolerance to deal too. It’s in no immediate danger of falling into the same chaos seen elsewhere, sure, but it’s important to tread carefully in these tumultuous times rather than assume we’re immune to our neighbors’ failings and indulgences.
Post 9/11, fear and suspicion of the unknown have taken the West hostage. Within societies just like ours, a dramatic clash of ideology and civilizations seems to be afoot. One cannot help but think of the late Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, which found the post-Cold War world order divided between different civilizations whose differences make them likely to clash with each other. Among those in contention were the ‘Western’ and ‘Islamic’ civilizations, Huntington writes.
Perhaps, this clash has found its way to Canada. An Angus Reid poll from 2013 reported some disturbing numbers about islamophobia from Canada, especially Québec. 69% of Québécois reportedly answered that they had a negative opinion of Islam. In the rest of Canada, 54% had agreed they had a negative opinion of Islam. These two numbers have both gone up since the same poll was conducted in 2009, at which time Québec’s figure was 68% and Canada’s was below half at 46%.
For Québec, that number is especially worrying. But could we say it’s surprising? Not necessarily. If Canada is thought to be a mosaic of cultures, Québec has adopted a more American ‘melting pot’ model for cultural integration.
Here, Québec values inter-culturalism, rather than multiculturalism. Newcomers should be able to speak the French language, Québec’s only official language, they should leave their religious practices in the private sphere, and adhere to Québec values. This inter-culturalism approach is mostly used to ensure Québécois culture survives its minority situation within Canada, since the Québécois feel threatened.
No one can blame a group for doing what it can to ensure its culture thrives provided those efforts don’t undermine the liberty of others. But these circumstances have left Québec as the clearest example of Canada’s islamophobia problem. Almost three years ago now, the Charter of Values became the talk of the chattering classes when the Parti Québécois’s (PQ) Bernard Drainville proposed Bill 60 to ban ostentatious religious signs from being worn by people working in the public sector. Little necklaces that weren’t too visible were fine, but anything that the eye could spot was not acceptable under the proposed law. While not specifically naming any religious group, and despite Mr. Drainville’s beating around the bush, it soon became clear that the intended target of the Charter was traditional Muslim headdresses for women (hijab, niqab, burqa, etc.)
The arguments for the ill-fated bill were essentially arguments cloaked in secularism and feminism. Since Québec largely distanced itself from religion in the 1960s, separating church from state after decades of theological domination over its public institutions, most notably the health and education systems, the Charter of Values was seen by some as a logical extension of those past efforts, vying for a fully non-religious public service like France has adopted. The Muslim headdress too has been regarded by the Québécois as a sign of oppression of the Muslim woman by men and their faith. But critics saw the Charter as a heavy-handed effort to undermine freedom of religion, imposing a way of life on Muslim women under the guise of ‘liberating’ them.
In Québec, the Charter had the overwhelming support of Québécois – 60%, according to polls. And yet, it was largely seen as one of the reasons the PQ lost the 2014 election. But rather than backtrack, the PQ seems to be continuing down the path of ethnic nationalism. Jean-François Lisée, an old-guard péquiste who’s been around since the olden days of Jacques Parizeau, condemned his rival Alexandre Cloutier for wishing Muslims ‘Eid Mubarak’ at the end of Ramadan in 2016. On Twitter, after someone questioned Cloutier’s tweet about Ramadan, Lisée replied: “With much respect to liberty of religion, I asked myself the same question. And where is the day to celebrate atheists?” That would be all fine and good except Lisée himself wished Christians, ‘Joyeuses Pâques’ on Twitter without opposition. This flip flop within the PQ ranks might just be representative of the malaise and the lack of cohesion afflicting the party. More likely, however, is that this is yet another example of a double standard held towards Muslims in both Québec and Canada.
Right now, the root of Europe’s current troubles, as it was throughout the twentieth century, is nationalism too. The clearest example being France. Since the Charlie Hebdo attacks last year, the republic has been a prime target for Islamic fundamentalists. The Bataclan, a Jewish supermarket and the offices of newspaper Libération are but some of the incidents that have taken many French lives, hurt a proud nation, and spread fear and panic. In that time, Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) has been on the rise. And every time such an attack occurs, political capital is sown.
“The war against the scourge of Islamic fundamentalism has not started,” said Le Pen in response to the deadly truck attack in Nice that left eighty four dead, “it is urgent now to declare.” While most agree that it is important to prevent radicalization and extremism in any society, the FN’s approach boasts a extremism that is all too familiar. After all, soon after the Paris attacks last November, LePen’s adviser Florian Philipott said “[Islamic extremists] will infiltrate the migratory flux that is arriving in Europe. It is irresponsible to continue this welcoming of migrants.” Taken out of context, this bears more than a passing resemblance to the fear-mongering of Donald Trump.
Trump’s attitude has certainly alienated Muslims in the US and around the world. We can see Muslims worried what this kind of rhetoric, popular in both the US and Europe at the moment, could cause in societies. Canadians were, and always have been, encouraged to celebrate their differences, share their cultures and treat each other as one big family. However, in the current climate of fear gripping the rest of Western civilization, it would seem some are celebrating their differences by looking inwards rather than outwards.
In Canada, Muslim-Canadians seem to share that sentiment. For them, there are upsides, granted: a recent study by the Environics Institute has shown they feel increasingly attached to Canada, 83% of Muslim Canadians said they were very proud of being Canadian. This development is indeed quite promising, and was most likely bolstered by Canada’s openness towards Syrian refugees, plus the change in attitude we’ve seen since the last election. But in the same study, 50% claimed their Muslim faith was more important than their Canadian identity. Worse still, 62% of Muslim-Canadians admitted to being worried about discrimination against their religious group, and as many as 35% believe the next generation will be victims of discrimination. Some of those fears have, unfortunately, manifested themselves in the radicalization of young Canadians, like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the perpetrator of the Parliament Hill attack in October 2014. Furthermore, Canadians as young as CEGEP age have been caught heading to the Middle East to fight for Daech. This is a cause for concern because effectively what we’re seeing is youth who, feeling rejected by both their parents’ culture and their adoptive land, choose to radicalize. And for those who do not radicalize, the study suggests they’re still putting their faith ahead of their attachment to Canada.
Looking at what’s going on elsewhere, Canadians do have reasons to consider themselves lucky. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is the polar opposite of Trump, and our country remains a functional multicultural, multinational federation. At a time when frustrations are being exacerbated by an endless string of attacks terrorizing the western world since he gained power, Trudeau’s done little but attempt to kill the terrorists with kindness, calling for unity, tolerance and inclusion. To support this, the Prime Minister has not shied away from showing solidarity with various communities. He walked in the Toronto Pride Parade and raised the rainbow flag on Parliament Hill in solidarity of the LGBTQ community, he hosted and attended iftars and visited the Peterborough mosque to celebrate Muslims, and he apologized for the Komagata Maru to the Sikhs.
The intentions are clearly noble, but the consequences, as unintentional as they may be, must be considered. Trudeau has often said Canada is strong not in spite of its differences, but because of them. His vision, of course, is that of a society where different cultures and communities can exist peacefully within Canada without one dominating the other. Such a world would mean the end of the ‘nation-state,’ – the same notion his father Pierre blamed for having “managed to cripple the advance of civilization. ” And history seems to be siding with him as, if there’s one thing it has indeed taught us, it’s that, taken to the extreme, nationalism can be destructive.
As early as the Fenian Attacks that rocked our newly confederated dominion, the biggest threat to our unity has always been nationalism. Since Confederation, Canada has had three founding nations: French Canadians, English Canadians and Aboriginals. But Pierre Trudeau once said, quite perceptively, that whenever any nation split, it would only find smaller nationalist groups within it à l’infini. There is no ‘pan-francophone’ vision to unite the disparate minorities of French-speaking Canada – the Québécois, the Franco-Ontarians, the Métis and the Acadians. And when the Québécois declare themselves a nation, are they including the English part of their population, some of whom have been in Québec for generations? Or what about the person who has emigrated to Québec from Syria twenty years ago, has become a resident, and is a part of that society just like the Québécois de souche? And what about the rest of Canada!? We do, after all, like our hyphenations here in Canada: Arab-Canadians, Sino-Canadians, Indian-Canadians, etc.
Sociologist Benedict Anderson once asked us to think of our countries as ‘imagined communities’. He argued that, even in the smallest of micro-nations, a person could never know all of their fellow citizens, which would mean their sense of belonging would come from imagining an attachment to others. In a country as vast and as geographically blessed as Canada, those sentiments ring very true. Our borders, stretching A mari usque ad mare, make it hard for everyone to know each other, but our national unity has survived almost one hundred and fifty years thanks to the common values that unite us. Perhaps then it’s time to use our imagination and think of ourselves as simply Canadians before the divisions we’ve marked in our society act as the foundations for the kind of extremism now playing out south of the border and across the rest of the western world.
Ronny Al-Nosir is a proud Montréaler of Syrian and Kurdish descent who studies Political Science at McGill.
Through his writing and civic engagement, Ronny hopes to show that anyone who wants to can have a voice.